Walk into Smoke early on any Saturday afternoon and you'll get the sense that the year-old restaurant hums along effortlessly. Simple preparations, a small, amiable kitchen crew, a mastery of the menu. Truth is, the food takes hours to prepare and there is meticulous care in the execution of what Smoke's chef Tim Byres lovingly calls Heritage Inspired Cuisine.
His background had been in fine dining, with stints at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek and Stephan Pyles. But a year and a half ago, he decided to make "a serious change." Divorce and other personal issues caused him to set out on a personal journey searching for renewal and recipes through six southern states. Not only was he looking for a new restaurant concept, but he also sought to change his approach to cooking. "I was always into Americana, that old-fashioned type of cooking," he says. "So for me it went back to charcoal, firewood, ash, home canning and preserving and curing." He had a need, he says, to take the past and somehow make it new again.
"Most of the areas I visited were economically depressed but agrarian," he says. "There is all this lost economy, but then you see these little restaurants. They know where their eggs are coming from, they got a guy who grows pigs for them, [they] bake their own bread and make their own preserves," he says.
He took what he had gleaned from his travels, and poured it into Smoke, which he began in Oak Cliff's Belmont Hotel with partners Chris Jeffers and Chris Zielke of Bolsa fame. They had been approached by the owners of the hotel, who were seeking to change the concept in the hotel's restaurant.
"We got in [the Belmont] and wanted to do something ambitious and regionally appropriate," Byers says. " I just got back from my trip -- and decided we needed this cold smoke house and a wood burning grill. We needed a barbecue pit. We needed the real deal."
And Byres brought back more. He infused Smoke with some of the charm and graciousness that was extended to him during his sabbatical, a sentiment his staff in turn tries to extend to the restaurant's patrons. "In those travels I would meet people and talk to them for an hour and a half. I sat in one restaurant and a woman gave me two iced teas, a pimento sandwich and directions to the next town. It was the exact opposite of what we have in Dallas," he says. "The white napkin, black napkin, the valet parking, the right stemware. I learned that it really doesn't matter if the spoons do not match as long as all the other elements are in their place."
Smoke's hospitality aside, there's the food, which relies heavily on local resources and continues to evolve and change. "All of our hams, charcutrie, and meats are made here. We bake our own bread and tortillas. Many of the vegetables we can ourselves and make jams and preserves."
Not too long ago, he noticed that he had different menus for breakfast, lunch, brunch, dinner and room service. "They were all over the place. So I worked to bring those all together and make them more similar." The result is a more cohesive menu and a restaurant that seems to be coming into its own. Take the bar menu: Instead of purchasing pre-made syrups, Smoke makes their own drink bases. It grinds dried chiles into smooth paste for its powerful eye-opening Bloody Mary.
After our interview chef Byres took us on a tour of the Belmont, which included a walk through his vegetable garden for a peek at vine-ripening tomatoes and his many herbs and peppers. A lively wedding party had gathered around the pool area, and was enjoying trays of food sent from the Smoke kitchen.
The tour continued in the kitchen where we met Smoke's sous chef Robert Sandberg who was busy taking orders from the early dinner crowd that was starting to congregate in the smallish dining room. We stopped at the wood-oven pit that housed the legendary Big Rib, a giant haunch of beef that grows tender after hours of slow smoking. The meat was juicy and spoon-tender with a delicate balance of smoke and beefiness.Smoke's house-made charcuterie includes interesting meats such as his rabbit sausage made with subtleties of allspice, or the pork andouille, which has enough kick to jump start a heart
We sampled home-made pickles--a throwback to grandma's house and generous quenelles of his strawberry and rosemary jam on house-made toast points. The jam was smooth and rich with flavors of fresh berry and the herb that grows wild across the property.
The highlight of the kitchen tastings was Byres spooning out the supernal cheese grits and hominy casserole. It's smooth and creamy and made with Homestead Gristmill grits that are milled by Waco artisans.
Funny how this Johnson and Wales trained chef, who spent a year cooking at the U.S. embassy in Brussels as its chef de cuisine and locally as the Executive Chef at Stephan Pyles, has evolved and yet come full circle.
Recently he was invited to the White House along with John Tesar of Dallas Restaurant Group and chefs across the country at the behest of the First Lady Michelle Obama to start her initiative to educate students on the importance of eating healthy. Byres has taken this request to heart and has plans to partner with DISD's James S. Hogg Elementary. Together they will build a garden at the school and raise the awareness of students and their families with his back-to-basics approach to food preparation. Look for future fundraisers to help with these efforts.
This week Byres is off to Lexington, Kentucky where he has been selected by the James Beard Foundation to be a celebrity chef at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. International chefs will be paired with Kentucky chefs using only local farms, brewers, distillers, growers and cheese-makers under the Kentucky Proud program.
Despite his busy schedule, Byres still found time to answer 13 additional City of Ate questions, which we will post tomorrow. And Friday the chef takes us back into his kitchen to make a homemade smoked sausage from scratch, which he assures us is simple enough for any home cook to tackle.
901 Fort Worth Avenue, Dallas